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Midland council approves 2.5% blended tax rate

'I believe we failed in that, and I cannot support the budget,' says Gordon, who was among the three councillors that voted against the proposed tax rate
Council finalized the tax rate after three days of detailed deliberations.

Council voted Wednesday to approve a 2.5% blended (municipal, county, and education) tax rate for 2021. 

The decision came at the end of day three of deliberations, at the end of which some were still dissatisfied by the lack of options to save more money.

"I won't be able to vote for this budget," said Coun. Beth Prost, who with her peers Couns. Bill Gordon and Carole McGinn voted against the rate. "We're in a pandemic and I just cannot do it. Not to say everybody's hard work isn't acknowledged. It's a hard decision, but I have to think about every resident in this town and that's what I'm doing."

Her stance was backed by Gordon.

"I really don't think we've sharpened our pencils enough; there wasn't enough appetite," he said. "Not a single thing pulled from the capital budget. There wasn't an appetite. In totality, if there was ever a year in this corporation's history to hold the line, I don't know what else would be. I believe we failed in that, and I cannot support the budget."

Deputy Mayor Mike Ross said he would have liked to see more savings, but would respect the democratic process and vote with his "team."

Others expressed more clear support for the budget.

"The last couple of days have been incredibly eye opening," said Coun. Jon Main. "I would say this isn't a catch-up year and we certainly don't want this to be a fall behind year. We want to continue to deliver quality services the town provides. It's a work in progress and I think for this year, we have to survive and the theme is healing. Next year, the theme might be celebration."

Mayor Stewart Strathearn was in agreement.

"I will support the budget," he said. "I think it's appropriate. Yes, we're in a pandemic, yes people are struggling, and if we're going to change that, we're going to have to invest. You can't save your way to prosperity, but you can invest and get a dividend and build prosperity."

The budget features gross operating expenditures of $31,585,011, including: $29,385,598 for municipal operations, $2,099,413 for agencies, boards.

The capital budget is set at $9,218,680 while the waste and wastewater operating budget is $7,050,911. The overall municipal tax rate is 3.56%, which indicates a $36 change per $100,000 of property assessment. 

During the question hour earlier in the day, Gordon was on top of the list when it came to looking for places to save money. One of the sections of budget he targeted was under council and committees. He, along with Ross, Prost, and McGinn, was looking for a reduction in the amount budgeted under the line item grants and donations.

Gordon started out by asking for the $130,000 to be slashed to $110,000, saving $20,000 for physician recruitment purposes. Others viewed that as a bit extreme.

There was opposition to the motion.

"I will not be supporting that motion," said Main. "This is not a lot of money that is disbursed. It's community development. We're very mindful of how we disburse it. Our hospital is woefully underfunded by the province and we have to make up for the difference. If we want to gradually pull out money, that's a good discussion to have."

Ross said he would want to have the conversation around it later this year and reduce the amount to around $60,000. Gordon proposed an amendment to his motion.

Gordon said his suggestion was only for this year.

"We need everybody to be all-in to help reduce the spend," he said. "I have seen some flexibility, nowhere near what I was hoping, but there's some flexibility. I'd be okay cutting it down to $60,000. We need to reduce something."

His motion, however, was defeated by majority vote.

"From my perspective, there are a lot of people who have put effort into the application process so far and that deserves to be respected," said Mayor Stewart Strathearn. "I'm interested in seeing a staff report on this. I understand the goal is to reduce the levy, but I'm not sure this is the best place of doing this at this late point in time."

Earlier during the day, there were also questions around various other items such as insurance costs, which have increased significantly, harbour fees, and parking revenues.

Ross asked about how the increase in parking revenue was calculated. In 2021, it is budgeted at $730,000, up $230,000 from the previous year.

"We're increasing our parking from 350 to 1,100," said Jim Reichheld, municipal law enforcement officer. "That's where that revenue is coming from. We're tripling our paid parking spots."

Ross also asked about an opportunity for long-term parking down at the harbour front.

"We're working out the fine details," said Reichheld. "We're looking at a pass for slip holders. We're exploring avenues for the boat launch as well to allow out-of-towners to use it with a fee."

Gordon wanted to clarify the parking rate.

"The initial shock is that we're going to rape the town with no more free parking," he said. "But the parking rate itself, are we holding the line on that?"

Reichheld confirmed that was the case.

"You may see a change in the fine on the tickets," he said, adding that was why the department is looking to bring on a second summer law enforcement student. "Parking permit fees are going down, an annual cost of under $100 for permit holders. We'll pilot that for a year at that price and then see where it is."

Town solicitor and executive director of corporate services, Tina Lococo, was asked about the increase in insurance fees, which have been on the rise overall.

"It's not specific to Midland," she said. "Everyone is experience huge insurance hikes because of the industry risk. Municipalities are viewed as high risk for a number of reasons."

In the another section, Gordon asked staff if the half a million approved for playground equipment would be spread out or could it be focused on only one park, such as Little Lake Park.

Andy Campbell, executive director of environment and infrastructure, said that would be up to public input and council. On day two, he had presented to council some design concepts that showed how much equipment could be added to four parks. With $500,000 divided among them, each listed park would receive up to three structures, or as otherwise decided by council with public input.

Ross wanted to know if there was opportunity to bring in more revenue through increased harbour fees.

"Last year, we increased the fees by 10%," said Campbell. "That was a significant increase. Over the last few years, it's only been inflationary increase. That 10% wasn't to recoup all those repair dollars in one year but over time. For this year, we've raised it only by 1.5% (inflationary increase)."

After no more savings could be found, council voted on the budget with the three main reductions that lead to the tax rate being reduced to 2.5% blended (municipal, county, and education).

The savings came with taking $100,000 for affordable and transitional housing policy and initiatives from a tax-rate stabilization reserve, vetoing a $76,500 library communications hire and a reduction of $60,000 in the total ask for four other staff positions within the organization.